Was Charles Dickens a Christian?
Someone asked me this question, and even from the outset I was reluctant to pursue it. In an earlier essay I questioned the religious beliefs of Albert Einstein, because he deliberately used words common to the Christian faith, but with an entirely different and very misleading meaning. Dickens, on the other hand, used words familiar to Christians, usually spoken by the characters in his books, with a Biblical meaning – mainly because his world was coloured by the common Church of England. With Einstein, I am sure his use of ‘Christian’ words may have misled many Christians into believing he was a believer, so an essay was needed, to sort out the problem, but with Dickens I cannot see any pressing need to define his religious convictions, because he did not try to deliberately mislead people.
The question itself, regarding Dickens, could also be construed as an insult – to anyone familiar with the man, and I would like to say that I am not in any way trying to fit this great author into some narrow, dogmatic pigeon-hole. To ask is to imply, and I am not trying to imply. I am really not interested in whether Dickens was a Christian, an Atheist or any other persuasion – for two reasons. The first is that a writer’s personal opinions or faith may be completely separate from his or her writings, so it is pointless to seek his faith in his books, and secondly, it is none of my business.
But having come this far, the essay might as well proceed.
How do we decide whether someone is or is not a Christian? There are two ways: first, the confession. To be a Christian one must acknowledge that Jesus is one’s Lord and Saviour. It is a verbal confession, made with sincerity, from the heart. It is not a once-only statement, but a conviction expressed in many ways, consistently over time. Normally, a Christian will want other people to also own Jesus as Lord and Saviour, so witnessing, or sharing the gospel with others is usually part of the confession.
The second way is by lifestyle. A Christian should be seen to be righteous – that is, morally upright, eschewing evil, embracing good. In simple terms, a Christian does not cheat, lie, steal, swear, blaspheme, take drugs, indulge in pornography, or indeed chase after any obviously sick or violent media, and so on. The list is quite extensive, and there always has to be a certain tempering against the prevailing background cultural norms. (For example, in some countries Christians see smoking as quite acceptable, while in others it is clearly inappropriate) But the general conclusion is that a Christian is, in works at least, a “good” person, reliable, hospitable, patient, kind, and generous, a person you can trust, a person who will always try to do the right thing.
With these things in mind, a brief summary of Dickens’ life (based on biographies) reveals almost no sign of a desire to share the gospel with anyone, and a great deal of secular or worldliness. Being ‘secular’ of course is not a criticism, as almost all of life can be called ‘secular’. He was, as far as his biographies go, a ‘man of the world’, yet he was guided by his conscience, as most people are, and he cared a great deal about the underprivileged, slaves, orphans and the poor – all very worthy and ‘Christian’ concerns. Needless to say, an atheist may care for these things as sincerely as any Christian – though in practice it is rather rare to see any atheist organization which rivals the equivalent Christian-based work.
Perhaps we need to approach the question from another angle? “If Dickens was accused of being a Christian, and taken to court for a trial of his faith, would there be enough evidence to convict him?” I think this is a perfectly good question, because it expands on the words of Jesus, “By their fruits you shall know them.” (Mat.7:20) Is there sufficient “fruit” in Dickens’ life to convict him of being a born-again, Spirit-filled Christian?
There are two ways in which a person may be examined on this charge: their inner beliefs, and their external lifestyle. The two go together and are usually inseparable, unless one is a consummate actor. The temptation is to ignore the whole of a person’s life, and narrow the trial down to just a handful of selected incidents, and base our conclusions on them – as in the adultery of King David with Bathsheba and various other ungodly acts of his, but a good judge would demand a fair trial, so the witness for the defense would need to cover a wide range of events, and present an overall picture. David did far more good and obedient things than bad, and his heart was tender towards God. Christians never live perfect lives. All slip up and have inherent faults. Dickens was no exception. If he was a Christian we would expect to find some blemishes in his life, so the defense rests on both the positive and the negative evidence. David, when he sinned, was a broken man (Psalm 51) and like Peter, he wept with sorrow over his sins. How people react to sin is also important.
A lawyer for Dickens’ defense might argue that all the stories Dickens wrote were moralistic. This surely is evidence that he was a Christian? – see, the lawyer might say, the Biblical standards of right and wrong being worked out in the lives of the characters, the triumph of good over evil, the death or capture of the bad and the vindication of the good. See the way Dickens shows sympathy for the villains, and brings lawful arrest to the crafty and dishonest; see how the tables are turned on those who plan wickedness. Divine justice is being done, as it always is – surely Dickens was a Christian because he understood that ‘there is a God in heaven who oversees the affairs of men?’ Even as we posit the question we know that the answer must be in the negative. Any writer, of any or no religious persuasion may write moralistic stories, and the fact that good triumphs over evil is no proof that the writer really believes in some Eternal Being who has imposed this rule on the universe.
Dickens did write several small ‘Christmas’ books, but they were more an experiment, an area in which he could use his imagination to delve into various seasonal themes, than an attempt to promote the Biblical story of Jesus the son of God, born King and Lamb, for the salvation and redemption of the world.
Attitudes to Biblical doctrine.
Another area, in which we might legitimately investigate the religious beliefs of Dickens, is to look at his attitudes to Biblical doctrine. The Bible makes it very clear that what a person believes is the basis on which God will judge him or her. Romans 10:9 “If you shall confess with your mouth the Lord Jesus, and shall believe in your heart that God has raised him from the dead, you shall be saved.” If Dickens held an alternative view to the plain teachings of Scripture, then perhaps we might have a body of evidence on which to make some sort of evaluation? For example, what did Dickens believe about death? Was he a believer in reincarnation – endless circles of never-ending life, in which a disembodied spirit returns to endless new lives lived inside the bodies of other persons, or a succession of animals? Or did Dickens believe that life was all there was, and death was eternal extinction?
1. The afterlife.
When his 17 year old sister-in-law Mary Hogarth died, Dickens was heart-broken. Fred Kaplan, ‘Dickens A Biography’ writes, “Charles responded to her death with controlled hysteria, the immense pain destroying his usual equilibrium. . . he wrote nothing for the rest of the month (3 weeks) . . . Mary’s death seemed a desertion so devastating that he kept her memory alive with conscious memorials and in recurrent dreams . . . . he could control both the pain of desertion and the fear of mortality by insisting, in an ever-rising rhetoric of transcendental affirmation, that “she is sentient and conscious of my emotions somewhere.” The faultless Mary . . . was “far above the foibles and vanity of her sex and age . . . is now in Heaven.” There is, he insisted, “the certainty of a bright and happy world beyond the Grave, which such young and untried creatures (half Angels here) must be called away by God to people.” (‘to people’ = ‘to populate’) Though he attended Sunday services regularly, he had no real commitment to the Anglican faith. But he found it impossible not to seek the emotional satisfaction of a general Christian belief in a personal afterlife. For years he had the same dream of Mary visiting him, whose “perpetual repetition is extraordinary.” In the fiction he wrote during this period, he anticipated the emotional ramifications of her death in the depiction of the death of Oliver’s mother and he dramatized these feelings in the death and ascension of Little Nell. Thereafter, though the force of what she had been to him remained strong, the rhetoric of heaven weakened and almost disappeared from his fiction.”
Dickens was brought up in a nominally Anglican household. His view of the church was one of stale, boring custom, and at worst repressive fanaticism. What he wanted was a religion which rose above traditional church, a religion based on the best will of the heart, which was not bound to sectarian dogmatism. He was used to the Anglican services, and sometimes he found enough good in them to admire them. Good Anglicans, he thought, set a high moral and religious example, and represented Jesus in a good way. “His novels resonate with phrases from the Bible and the Book of Common Prayer, whose ritual affirmations of eternal life moved him deeply. At the same time he was aggressively anticlerical, antidogmatic, and antisectarian. While not a rationalist, he wanted a reasonable religion that would not try common sense with excessive emphasis, let alone reliance, on miracles like the Trinity, the Virgin Birth, and transubstantiation. In the context of liberal Protestantism, he desired Jesus to be understood as an ordinary human being rather than as the Son of God. Searching for a community in which to express such views, in the winter of 1842-43 he had become a member of Tagart’s Unitarian congregation.” (Fred Kaplan, ‘Dickens, A Biography’) More on Unitarians later.
When Dickens saw the now famous painting by John Everett Millais, which depicted Jesus as an ordinary boy in a commonplace carpenter’s shop, he denounced it as indecent, even blasphemous. He thought that Jesus was misrepresented, because the painting, by its use of symbols and placement of objects, tried to elevate Jesus from being just a common carpenter’s helper, to God in the carpenter’s shop.
In 1853 Dickens said “
Every person has certain mannerisms or habits which are peculiar to themselves. Sometimes these individual facets of behaviour are labeled ‘faults’, or ‘antisocial’ by other people, and sometimes not. It all depends on what the community finds acceptable. For example, a person who likes physical contact, such as hugs and kisses, may be warmly received by people who like to be hugged and kissed, while in some circles such behaviour might be considered invasive and unpleasant. Again, someone with a fiery temper may be admired by some, and hated by others. If one examines one’s own life, one will surely find some character traits which are either acceptable or unacceptable to others – and the same can be said for Dickens.
We approach this aspect of the man with great caution. Measured against his genius, his background, the culture in which he lived and the quality of scientific enlightenment, his superstitions may have been considered reasonably normal. I leave it to the Reader to decide.
· He had a nervous terror of fire. He insured everything with the Sun Fire Office.
· He loved elegance and he loved light, hence his habit of installing mirrors in whichever house he occupied. It may also be that he liked seeing himself in the mirrors – it was well-known that he was vain.
· He had a preoccupation wit combing his hair. Even at dinner parties he would pull out a comb, if he thought his hair was ruffled, and apply it – maybe a hundred times a day.
· He always arranged and rearranged furniture until it was placed in exactly the order and position he wanted. This compulsion was so strong he could not work until every chair, table and whatever was precisely in the position he required.
· He always turned his bed to face north-south. As he said to a friend “he maintained that he could not sleep with it in any other position; and he backed up his objections by arguments about earth currents and positive and negative electricity. It may have been a mere fantasy but it was real enough to him . . . nervous and arbitrary, he was of the kind to whom whims are laws, and self-control in contrary circumstances was simply an impossibility.”
· He had an obsession about touching certain objects three times for luck.
· Friday was his “lucky” day.
He always left
· He was fascinated by the powers of ‘mesmerism’, or hypnotism and its twin phenomenon clairvoyance. There were many occasions when he personally believed that a certain “magnetized” subject had been gifted with second sight.
· He is known to have attended at least one séance.
· With family and friends he practiced the occult art of table-spinning.
· He was fascinated by ghosts. “I have always had a strong interest in the subject, and never knowingly lose an opportunity of pursuing it.” A friend of his remarked, “such was his interest generally in things supernatural, that, but for the strong restraining power of his common sense, he might have fallen into the follies of spiritualism.”
· He was fascinated by his own dreams and by the visions which appeared in them, of, for example, Mary Hogarth, and also dreams in which there was pre-cognition (the foretelling of future events.)
· He had difficulty in telling the difference between his dreams and reality (‘Dickens’, by Peter Ackroyd, page 360) “There are many occasions when Dickens points to “the land of shadows” as the origin of his fiction and when he even describes his serial fiction as “my month’s dream”. There are also times when that dream casts a veil over the actual world, when he could say of his fiction-“ . . .to believe it the only reality in life, and to mistake all the realities for short-lived shadows.” Thus the real world sometimes becomes for him a place of memory and shadow only; “I think what a dream we live in, until it seems for a moment the saddest dream that ever was dreamed.” And in remarks such as this, where it is clear that the world of his fiction has become utterly confused with the world of his waking life, we see how it was that the sadness of his own novels is turned into the nature of the world itself; and how sometimes Dickens is sometimes to be found wandering desolately inside one of his own fictions.”
Dickens wrote many stories, but in all his characters which come closest to being what we might call ‘Christian’ there is no doctrinal statement, such as we would expect from a Bible-based believer. But this alone is not proof one way or the other. Shakespeare also avoided making doctrinal statements in his plays, and in the context of a work of fiction it would be inappropriate. The audience would not like it anyway. Dickens usually portrayed churches as dusty places, or pretentious facades, full of empty rituals and forms. He usually mentions ministers only in parody, or to criticize them – yet people find huge amounts of ‘Christian’ sentiment in his books. There is a clear consistency in all this. On the one hand he was repelled by the institution of ‘Church’ and its representatives, but on the other hand he strongly believed in the principles or ethics behind Christianity. (As many people have recognized, the teachings of all the major religions share many things in common – generosity, hospitality, love, forgiveness, meekness, etc)
But while Dickens rejected the ‘Church’ as an institution, he had his own vision of the world which he fastened to an accepted universal creed, so the Christian faith was, for him, a brighter version of the good sentiments he believed in. You can find these sentiments in the Christmas Books (of which he wrote many). He did not draw on the Bible for his authority, but rather looked within himself and found all the ethics he needed inside himself – his natural sense of justice and goodness as guided by his conscience. (This inner goodness within Man was put there by God, because Man is made in the image of God, and has implanted within him the law, written on his heart. Rom.2:14,15 This is why, for example, Buddha could teach men to show hospitality, and Jesus could tell people to ‘turn the other cheek’ rather than take revenge. Neither of these teachers invented anything new – they simply put into words universal truths which were in all hearts from creation)
Leonard Mason, a Unitarian Universalist minister wrote:
Come, return to your place in the pews,
And hear our heretical views;
You were not born in sin so lift up your chin,
You have only your dogmas to lose.”
The UUA traces its roots to the radical wing of the Reformation, which considered itself the true heirs of New Testament Christianity. (Earl Morse Wilbur, ‘History of Unitarianism’, 2 vols. Boston: Beacon Press, 1945) Though never viewed as orthodox by its orthodox foes, it has always considered itself ‘Christian’.
John Biddle (1615-1662) is called the father of English Unitarianism. (About 200 years before Dickens was born) He used the Bible, in much the same way as Jehovah’s Witnesses and others do, to disprove the Trinity. He also gave bodily parts to God, restricted Him to a specific place where He was confined, and taught that God did not know everything.
Despite their claims to be based on the Bible, the Unitarian position, from its inception, has been to shift the authority of the Bible out of the way, and replace it with one’s own personal tastes and needs – a tailor-made religion which suits one’s self. This of course set the stage for a pluralistic view of all religions – a global approach to faith, a blend of religions into one general faith system. The activities of John Haynes Holmes, a prominent Unitarian of New York illustrate this clearly. One year after the Armistice (1919) he reconstituted the ‘Unitarian Church of the Messiah’ as the ‘Community Church of new York’, proclaimed Ghandi the greatest man in the world, and assimilated the festivals of the world’s religions into the church’s liturgical year.
Half the signers of the ‘Humanist Manifesto I’ were Unitarian Universalist ministers, as were the first four presidents of the American Humanist Association, the AHA’s first executive director and the journal’s first editor. Humanists affirm the theory of evolution and give science and reason the place of supremacy, and they look for ethical values from human sources, rather than divine.
One could follow the twisting trails of Unitarians and Humanists for a long time, but the pattern is clear – once people abandon the clear teachings of Scripture, they progressively sink deeper and deeper into error. Unitarians today believe in many popular New Age teachings – very little remains excluded, provided it is not the solid and dogmatic statements of the Bible.
There may be a lot more material pertinent to Dickens and his position regarding true Christianity which I have not found, and I apologize in advance if this essay seems too thin, but as far as my research goes, I think he probably was not a committed Christian in the Biblical sense. This is not to say that he was not a very kind and generous man, with many fine qualities, and I’m sure he put to shame many people who professed to actually be Christians. I have tried to be objective, and deal with whatever the biographers have provided, and I have weighed what I discovered against what the Bible says. As always, the Bible is my solid base from which I always begin and I make no apology for that.
Perhaps in this essay there is a warning to all of us – to be very careful to avoid falling into the trap of thinking our moral standards are in themselves altogether sufficient and pleasing to God, and that our definition of salvation is the same as God’s. It is, in the end, far better to be a ‘saved’ person than a ‘good’ person. Our only hope is to obey the Bible, and fall on our knees before the cross, on which Jesus died. He is our only chance at forgiveness, and only through him can any person truly become a Christian.
Dickens, by Peter Ackroyd. Published by Sinclair-Stevenson Limited.1990.
Dickens and his world, by J.B.Priestley. Published by
a biography, by Fred Kaplan. Published
by Hodder and
The Kingdom of the Cults, by Walter Martin. Published by Bethany House. 1997.